Not just that, but in each of these streams Frayn heads in different directions. “Copenhagen” and “Democracy” are literary plays, taut with interior drama. “Noises Off” is a farce. Headlong is a literary novel that deserved its Booker listing; Towards the End of Morning was a laugh throughout. There is no literary box that Frayn can be stuffed into.
And so we come to Skios, his latest novel. For those who know Frayn’s works, forget “Copenhagen” and Headlong — we are in “Noises Off” territory when we come to this novel. (For a review of Headlong, you can check out Trevor’s thoughts here — he gets it dead on.)
The Fred Toppler Foundation is the centre of “culture” on the small Greek island of Skios. Fred himself is long dead but his widow, the former stripper Bahama LeStarr, is now running the Foundation that she created as his legacy (and her contuining sustenance). Each year it hosts a Great European House Party where the rich and powerful from around the world gather to celebrate (and exchange data) and listen to the annual Toppler “lecture”, the highpoint of the week.
The lecture this year is to be delivered by Dr. Norman Wilfred: Innovation and Governance: the Promise of Scientometrics. Wilfred has been chosen by Mrs. Toppler’s PA, Nikki, the first time she has ever had the chance to choose the distinguished lecturer. Nikki is angling to become the next executive director of the Foundation and this is her chance to prove her worth.
Please God it wasn’t going to be too awful this year, prayed Nikki. All lectures, however unqiue and special, were of course awful, but some were more awful than others. There had to be a lecture. Why? Because there always had been one. There had been a Fred Toppler Lecture every year since the foundation had existed. They had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, the Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.
That gives you one sense of Frayn’s farce but the much bigger one occurs at the Skios airport. Dr. Wilfred is not the only distinguished guest arriving this day; so too is Oliver Fox, bon vivant and seducer, on his way to a week of sex with Georgie, whom he had met for five minutes in a bar somewhere and arranged a liaison. Oliver is a natural seducer and Georgie is eager for adventure since her partner is heading off for a sailing trip without her.
And so we have the establishing scene at the Skios airport as Nikki, with her carefully labelled “DR NORMAN WILFRED” sign awaits the arrival of her distinguished lecturer:
It was an example of the ever-renewed triumph of hope over probability, thought Nikki, trying to keep the skin round her mouth and eyes soft and amused. Whenever you were waiting for someone and you didn’t know exactly what they looked like, everyone seemed to be them. Fathers with small children. Grandfathers in ill-judged shorts. Women, even … Fat women … Fatter women still… Just for a moment, as each passenger emerged from the baggage hall and hesitated, not knowing where to go, Nikki tensed very slightly with the onset of charm. Then they would spot a familiar word — ‘Polkinghorne’, ‘Whispering Surf’ — and they would raise an acknowledging finger and cease to have any possible resemblance to Dr. Norman Wilfred.
As it happens, when Dr. Wilfred’s distinctive black suitcase with its “unique” identifying red tag comes tumbling down the baggage carousel, the distinguished lecturer is preoccupied with the devastating text he is sending to an obscure scholar in Manitoba who is writing a critical evaluation of his work. Oliver Fox, meanwhile, is looking for a black suitcase with red tag that he has stolen from Annuka Vos, the latest woman to find him wanting.
Oliver picks up the wrong suitcase and the farce is under way. His “date” for the week has been delayed and what harm is there in taking on another identity (he is used to this) for the intervening 24 hours. From here on in, Frayn is at his best — confused twin taxi drivers, worthy guests of the Foundation (and some not so worthy), jilted lovers and a host of others will be enrolled to be part of the author’s scheme.
To appreciate farce, you need to return to your childhood when you lined up the dominoes standing end-on-end in a careful, winding pattern — and then tipped the first one over and watched all the others fall in turn. That’s exactly what Frayn does in this highly readable, very amusing novel — if you want a little more detail on the “plot”, I’ll refer you to Will Rycroft’s excellent review at Just William’s Luck — he does an excellent job of outlining the plot without spoiling it.
I read Skios in two quick sittings and enjoyed every minute of the experience. Yes, you have to give the author a lot of licence — Frayn both deserves and rewards it. I don’t expect to see Skios on the Booker longlist when it is announced in a few months but if you are looking for the perfect book to take on a summer holiday, I can’t find a better recommendation.